So you want to open a democratic school.

By Aaron Keohane

Aaron currently works at Sudbury School Paris and will be joining us in September as one of our staff. You can read more on his background in democratic education on our Staff Team page . Here Aaron shares some of his insights and advice on the process of establishing a democratic school. This blog post originally featured on Aaron’s personal blog  is reproduced with the consent of the author.

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School Meeting at Democratic School of Hadera by Naaman Saar Stavy (23-01-09)

What is the minimum you need to open a democratic school? This is the question that really engaged my brain while I was visiting the New School in The Netherlands last week. This is unsurprising considering my current situation. Recently I have had the opportunity to co-found a democratic school in Paris. I arrived in France on the 1st of January and on March 7th we opened Sudbury School Paris. Then just when I thought things couldn’t get more crazy I meet a wonderful group of parents from Bray, Ireland, who I am now helping to establish Ireland’s first democratic school, Wicklow Sudbury School, which will open its doors in September. So this question of what are the main components necessary to start a democratic school has adopted a real personal significance lately. What follows are insights I have gleaned from conversations with a few fellow democratic education activists / social entrepreneurs. I do not claim to be an authority on the matter – I mean who is. I am simply sharing these insights with the sincere hope that they will be of benefit to others who believe in the principles of a democratic education.

So what is the minimum you need to set up a democratic school? Here is my answer in a nutshell:

  1.  Get the right people.
  2. Agree on a shared vision and philosophy
  3. Create the Legal and Organisational structures that truly reflect the school’s division of power.
  4. Have a critical mass of people who understand and live the philosophy.

1)      Getting the Right People

This is step zero; it is the foundation on which everything else is built. These people are resourceful, good communicators, capable organisers, are emotionally stable with small egos and don’t mind getting their hands dirty. They must also be very committed to the project.

Associated lessons:

  • How many should be on the team? Every case is different but from what I’ve heard the magic number ranges between 5-7. With increasing numbers, there is a growing risk that two distinct groups will form, the core group and the peripheral group.
  • Some or most of the team will also probably make up the staff once the school opens. A great filter to ensure that the staff are super committed people is to have a “no one gets paid for the first year” policy. This has the added benefit of giving you some extra breathing space financially speaking for the first year.  Admittedly, there is a trade-off here. There will be some really great people who could be staff in the school but are unable to even consider working for free for a year. On the other hand, by adopting the policy you will ensure that you will not get staff who would be unwilling to make a financial sacrifice in order to contribute to the project.
  • Accept that even if you have a group of really committed group of people there will always be one or two who do most of the work. Expectations that everyone will contribute equally will often simply lead to resentment. Everyone is different.
  • If you do not have a group yet, you need to build one. Before you begin your search it would be advisable to make a decision on whether you a) want to create a vision with the group of people you find or b) become the vision holder as described in step 2 and then find your group based on your vision.
  • I cannot emphasise enough how valuable visiting democratic schools and talking to members of the democratic education community is.

2)      Agree on a Shared Vision & Philosophy

A shared vision is essential to ensure the long-term viability of the project. The people might be right but if there is a major divergence in terms of vision the project will fail before it even begins or end within two or three years of opening once differences in the vision emerge.

The approach to this step depends on whether there is a pre-existing group or if you are starting out on your own.

a) If you currently not a member of a group then before finding other group members you may decide to become the vision holder. The vision-holder is the person who articulates a vision and then people join their team if they agree with this vision. Once the vision holder has defined their vision they then can share their vision through various means such as a website, social media, or hosting public screenings of democratic education documentaries followed by Question & Answer sessions. It is important that the vision holder is a good communicator and can clearly define their vision. Defining a vision for a school is no small task, a school is a community and a community is made up of many different parts.

b) If the project began with a group it is a little more complicated. The group might know what they don’t want (mainstream education) but now they must also figure out what they do want. The process of creating a very coherent and clear collective vision is a sometimes difficult but extremely important step for the group to go through. It is only through forging a collective vision that philosophical and ideological differences can come to light and be talked about openly. To this end it is good to ask both complex and seemingly simple questions, such as; will there be a canteen? What do the terms ‘coercive’ and ‘non-coercive’ mean in the context of your school? Will there be classes of any kind? Will there be teachers? Who will clean the school? How will conflict be resolved? The process of creating a shared vision can sometimes be like going on a collective philosophical journey and this can take time. How much time should this take? The answer is as much time as is necessary. This process needs to be given the time and space it deserves. This process should continue until either the group splits, some members leave or every member of the group honestly feels like they have a very clear picture of what the group wants to achieve and agree with it whole-heartedly. If the group members visions differ fundamentally (e.g. using consensus v democracy or teacher v no teachers) then do not be afraid to split. It is better to split early and it happens to many groups and so often that it could almost be considered a right of passage.

Associated lesson:

  • Do not feel like you have to re-invent the wheel. There are some very, very good democratic schools out there. You could do worse than adopt their model in its entirety and let it evolve naturally through the democratic process once the school is established.
  • Visiting democratic schools can really help to bring crystallise what you want to create. Even just talking to seasoned members of the democratic education community can also really help in this regard. To this end, I would highly, highly, highly recommend attending the annual EUDEC conference where opportunities to have these valuable conversations will abound.

3)    Create Legal and Organisational structures that reflect the division of Power

It is important to acknowledge that power structures exist in every school including the one you will create. Power is about who decides what, who is empowered to make decisions on certain things. Clearly by engaging in a project to create a democratic school where every student has an equal vote on many, if not all, topics concerning the school community the intention is to create structures that are very different to the hierarchical and authority-based power structures of traditional schools. However, as in the case of creating a vision, knowing what you do not want to be is simply not enough – you need to very clearly define the structures of power which will underlie the day to day running of the school.

There are two main mechanisms that decide the decision of power:

  • The Legal Vehicle
  • The Organisational Structures

Both of these mechanisms form part of the foundation of the power structures of the school. One forms the legal foundation of the school while the other forms the foundation for the daily life of the school. Therefore, it follows that these should complement rather than undermine each other.

Deciding on the type of Legal Vehicle and its customisation is an important step in laying a solid legal foundation for the school. Legal Vehicles come in different forms such as a company limited by guarantee, a cooperative etc. Most traditional forms of these legal entities are not suitable legal vehicles for a democratic school, at least not in their standard format, as usually, they create a power structure empowering individuals such as a president or treasurer. This is unlikely to complement the vision of the school.  However, if the by-laws (also known as the Articles of Association) of the legal entity are customised then it may become a suitable legal vehicle for a democratic school. This might mean either a) finding a person knowledgeable in law who can think outside the box or b) doing some research yourself. Alternatively, you might be lucky enough to have a school with a similar philosophy who has already done this hard work already.

In the context of a democratic school, ultimately the exercise of identifying and defining power structures comes down to just one question: what is the degree of power of the School Meeting? If you can define the power of the school meeting clearly all other power structures will follow. For example, if the school meeting does not have the power to decide on the whole school budget  or the power to hire staff then the power and membership of the other body which makes decisions on the other part of the budget and on hiring staff will also have to be defined.

Customising legal frameworks seem like a lot of work, why should I bother? I mean what’s the worst that can happen? These are valid questions. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the students ownership is superficial and false if the president of the company can undermine their decisions at a moments notice. Secondly, democratic schools are living, breathing social organisms that grow, evolve and sometimes are faced with challenges of a legal nature. By not providing a legal foundation that complements the democratic vision and philosophy of the school you will deprive the school community of a firm foothold to engage in and learn from the valuable learning opportunities presented when the school community is faced with a tricky legal situation to navigate.

The Organisational Structures are the laws and procedures within the school that are the foundation of the day to day life of the school. The Organisational Structure includes the school’s law book and all the policies and procedures that are concerned with the running of the school.

Power is sneaky. Particularly the traditional kind of power based on social and cultural norms that democratic education aims to challenge. This can often lead to unrecognised implicit power going unnoticed. If not identified, brought into the open and explicitly named and discussed, existing culturally normative power structures will continue to perpetuate themselves. Transparency achieved through clearly defined roles, with clearly defined areas of responsibility and clearly defined decision-making processes are the enemy of these unwanted implicit power structures. In the event that there is a lack of clarity existing power structures will prevail and those who benefit from them, i.e. adults and staff will be empowered while students will be conversely disempowered. As a colleague of mine pointed out, if a member of the school community wants to change something and they don’t know how to change it as there is no clear explanation of where the power is and who has that power, then they will often fail to engage in a process of change and self-empowerment and consequently will be disempowered.

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have a very clear and very transparent Legal Vehicle and Organisational Structure in order to decide consciously what kind of school you want to create. This is tricky as how can you know what type of legal and organisational structures will be best for your community until your community is up and running? You have three different options a) talk to fellow democratic education activists/entrepreneurs and adopt their pre-existing legal and organisational structures, b) talk to fellow democratic education activists/entrepreneurs and use their advice to inform your best guess what these legal and organisational structures should be or c) just wing it and seriously risk doing a lot of damage to the children under your care and to the democratic education movement as a whole.

Associated lessons:

  • As a wise man once said to me: “just talk to people”. Don’t be afraid to email people, ring people, go for coffee with people, tell them your story and ask for advice. People will often be very, very generous with their time when it comes to helping passionate people start democratic schools. In particular don’t be afraid to contact founders of democratic schools (like me :)), they more than anyone else can appreciate and relate to your position.

4)      A Critical Mass of People who live the Philosophy

A democratic school lives and dies by its culture. The Legal Vehicle and Organisational Structure might be perfect but they would be essentially meaningless if there is nobody in the school who has a clear understanding of its philosophy and embodies that philosophy in their daily actions. But even then it will be difficult. Often times the question of achieving a critical mass comes down to a question of quality rather than quantity. Most of us have grown up in a culture characterised by traditional forms of education and outdated ideas of learning and it can take some time for people to engage in the paradigm shift necessary to really understand and ‘get’ the philosophy of the school and democratic education, I believe the Sudbury Model is particularly difficult in this regard. One way the group who is founding the school can work towards achieving this critical mass is engaging in a continual process of improving the quality of their understanding of the values and ideas of democratic education through learning about, discussing and living these ideas and values in their meeting practices and, indeed, in their day to day lives.

Additional lessons:

  • Finances, I have not mentioned them. The reason for this is that if you have a lot of money it makes things easier, but if you don’t have a lot of money (like most groups) you will have to figure out a way of opening the school anyway – and you will, if you are resourceful and committed enough. Finances in my experience will not be a problem to a committed group, in fact, often it can be an unnecessary worry and distraction from the other main steps mentioned above.  I’m not saying that finances should be ignored, they definitely should not. They simply should not be made into the huge obstacle that sometimes people make them out to be.
  • It is easy to get nervous about the initial number of students who will attend your school and to engage in persuading or convincing parents to send their children to your school. This is a mistake. Do not ‘sell’ your school – simply explain it. Then those who choose to go to your school will be there because they really get understand it and not because they were convinced by persuasive rhetoric or good stories. If parents do not really understand the philosophy of the school this can lead to many, many problems. You reap what you sow.
  • I’ve mentioned it already but I’m going to say it just one more time – VISIT EXISTING DEMOCRATIC SCHOOLS!!

I would like to acknowledge that this blog post would not have been possible without the shared wisdom and insight of experienced democratic education entrepeneurs and activists. I am lucky enough to call them friends. Thank you to Peter Hartkamp, Ramin Farhangi and Robert Welti. In addition, I would like to thank the participants of the workshop I hosted on this subject as part of the second IDEC@INTERNET Online OpenSpace Conference and to Marko Koskinen who made the workshop possible.

If you’ve found this article and read this far know that as I type I’m sending you out positive vibes and wish you joy and fun on the adventure ahead of you.:)

Peace, love and solidarity,



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